Oralities & Literacies – Chapter 9 – Communicating Christ Among Oral Cultures

The following is a chapter from the book ‘Oralities and Literacies: Implications for Communication and Education‘.  A chapter will be posted here each week.

Chapter 9 – Communicating Christ Among Oral Cultures

by Rev. Romerlito C. Macalinao, Ed.D.

This chapter seeks to address the question: “How should our understanding of the orality/oralities question affect our approaches to communication generally and more specifically in Christian ministry and cross-cultural missions?”  This question needs some unpacking to bring out its logical segments and from there begin exploring some practical answers. Allow me to unpack the question into its logical segments and from there begin exploring some responses:

  1. Orality informs the appropriate communication process – Appreciate the Audience
  2. Orality drives the communication strategy – Adapt a Mission Strategy
  3. Orality validates the outcomes of the initiative – Assess the Impact of the Gospel

Answers to this question is drawn from knowledge and experience from about two decades of radio broadcasting work with FEBC Philippines as a radio Bible teacher; more than a decade of teaching in formal and non-formal setting in Biblical educational institutions, Colleges and Seminaries; nearly a decade and still leading Wycliffe Bible Translators Philippines as its first CEO and the Founding Director of the Language and Culture Institute.

Orality informs the appropriate communication process – Appreciate the Audience

For a thorough understanding of Orality, no one comes close from the definitive work of Walter Ong.  His book Orality and Literacy (1982, 2002) is described In Making Disciples of Oral Learners (ION/LCWE, 2004): This is the groundbreaking scholarly work in the field to date. No other work has superseded it.  His ubiquity in any literature on the subject of orality and literacy reflects the profound impact of his research. Ong revealed the psychological, cultural and philosophical underpinnings of Orality from the fulcrum of Literacy. Thus, Ong describes the depth and breadth of the oral spectrum beginning with preliterates ending with postliterates.

He refers to primitive cultures as preliterates and modern cultures as postliterates. Central to this oral spectrum is the understanding on how literacy evolved. Prior to literacy, the world is governed by orally-based thought as we now describe it.  No system of writing, printing, or any digital media to retrieve and read that describe our literate world.  Literacy evolved from orality, when oral cultures have developed their own writing (chirographic), printing (typographic) and other digital storage and retrieval systems (electronic).   This has changed our way of thinking and doing things; we have developed a literate culture. We must enter the world of orally based thought in order to understand it so as to communicate effectively.

In chapter three of his work, Ong suggested several attributes of orally based thought:

  1. Additive rather than subordinative
  2. Aggregative rather than analytic
  • Redundant or ‘copious’
  1. Conservative or traditionalist
  2. Close to the human lifeworld
  3. Agonistically toned
  • Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced
  • Homeostatic
  1. Situational rather than abstract

The production of sound and speech is the primary means of communicating among oral cultures.  Mankind is oral from the very beginning and there are still cultures that remain oral. The sound of the human voice and the variety of sounds is captured, stored and retrieved later on for literate purposes. Sounds are phonemes which become words and speech when grouped together.  Sounds are encoded using phonetic standards and this becomes the foundation for the development of orthographies. Having successfully done so, an oral culture is given its alphabet and is taught how to read and write and the journey to literacy begins.  Oral peoples without a written Bible translation in their heart language, a.k.a. Bible-less peoples, fit the category described by Ong as preliterates. This is how it is done in the work of Bible translation and literacy.  While the language of an oral community has been formalized with an alphabet that led to their ability to read and write, this path to literacy has marginalized the rich cultural dimension of oral cultures which is crucial to the spiritual transformation of ethnolinguistic communities.

A language-centered focus with a production of a translated written Bible is considered an accomplishment by literates, but not so with oral cultures. There are times that there are translated written Bibles that have no people using them, a.k.a. People-less Bibles. Oral societies perceive the written Bible as a disconnect to their oral culture. To communicate the Gospel among oral cultures, the translation of the Bible must embrace the full spectrum of an orally based thought and allow such an understanding to inform and guide the work in concrete and intentional ways. When the objective is to see the people won to Christ and the establishing of communities of culturally-sensitive followers of Christ, an oral Bible translation is the sound decision to work among orally-focused thinking people.

Having an understanding of orally based thought and the necessity of oral Bible translation, it is imperative that the richness of oral cultures is contextualized in the development of Oral Bible Stories.  Failure to do this will only reduce Oral Bible Stories as a product of the work of a literate, like a written Bible translation. We need to start with a fresh initiative that recognizes the foundations of Orality and envisions the future of our work and this I pronounce into existence as Ethno-orality. This affirms the category described by Ong pertaining to preliterates and Neo-orality to refer to postliterates. This is a necessary movement away from the fulcrum of literacy to that of orality to describe our vision, mission and purpose of our work among oral cultures. For purposes of delimitation, the primary focus and interest of this chapter is on Ethno-orality with incidental ideas on Neo-orality.

In developing the communication process, Viggo Sogaard presented a comprehensive model of the communication process in chapter two of his work, Media In Church and Mission: Communicating the Gospel (1993):

  1. Source/Sender: The Communicator
  2. The Receiver: The Audience
  3. The Context of the Audience
  4. Research: Getting the Information
  5. Selection of Content
  6. Identifying the Channel
  7. Reception
  8. Formulating the Message
  9. Monitoring and Evaluation
  10. Response and Research
  11. Noise

Interestingly, Sogaard gave a discussion question pointed at Bible translators: “How can you develop translations that not only give an accurate translation of the Word of God, but also communicate with people who may be functionally illiterate?” My paraphrase: How can we develop Oral Bible Stories/Oral Strategies that communicate to orally based thinking people?

Orality drives the communication strategy – Adapt a Mission Strategy

Joining the Mission of God is the driving force with our work among oral cultures.  Our vision is to see Bibleless unengaged unreached people groups receive the life-transforming Word of God and the multiplication of culturally-sensitive communities of Christ-followers. Our strategy is to see the deployment of called, trained, equipped and committed spirit-filled Filipino missionaries who are supported and commissioned by their churches to serve among these nations. At the ground level, together with field partners, the mission strategy among oral cultures is a cohesive mix of Ethno-orality initiatives. This involves ethnographic research, the development of Oral Bible Story sets, conducting ethno arts workshops and other orally based mission strategy that intentionally address the emergence of a culturally-sensitive communities of Christ-followers.

I have observed in the context of Bible translation in the Philippines the negative result of the lack of this cohesive mix in both oral and literal initiatives. Ethno arts, as a method and a strategy in the Ethno-orality initiatives, is often an afterthought, trailing behind towards the end of a completed Bible translation in print. I have witnessed the cultural showcase in clothing, arts, dances, songs, chants and pre-Christian rituals in the many Bible dedications I have attended. Entertained by the rich showcase of indigenous oral culture, one inquires how much of that is redeemed into the life of the church of this orally based ethnolinguistic communities? Almost nil. Not only is there a Bible translation in book form, but also hymns and songs of the Global North translated and sung in the Global South.

An oral culture is dismantled, not by its own doing, but by a diffusion of innovation that did not contextualize strategies. Any strategy that do not intentionally redeem oral cultures is somewhat imperialistic and the consequences show a lack of spiritual vitality, sustainability and generativity of the communities of Christ-followers for not having affirmed their oral culture.

Ethno arts and Oral Bible Story

Ethno arts and Oral Bible Story are the two critical ingredients of Ethno-orality initiatives. As of today, these two facets operate independently, perpetuating the compartmentalization of strategies that from an oral culture adds to the marginalization of their cohesive worldview. Story, dance, chant, and song are all one. They are not arranged logically and sequentially linear. An orally based thought sees all of this in an image, moving and declaring its meaning. Oral Bible Story as we know it is derived from a literate starting point, beginning with a printed Bible.

We could not be helped in any way to change this because we are a literate culture. However, the change needs to take place in the operation of our memory, the crafting of the stories and the propagation of the Oral Bible Stories. The drive of the literate mind for an accurate retelling of the story would learn better by adjusting the retelling according to the context of the oral audience. In that retelling, it must also integrate the mnemonics that is native to the audience in order to aid them retell the stories. Among oral cultures, storytelling is an art form as well as the performing arts. The dance, music, songs and dramas are stories. An Oral Bible Story could be presented with these ethno art forms.

The knowledge of the ethno arts of any oral culture is derived from both library research and current ethnographic participant observation. The book, Worship and Mission for the Global Church: An Ethnodoxology Handbook edited by James R, Krabill, et al (2013), is an excellent reference in the field of ethno arts. However, the challenge is how does ethno arts integrate Oral Bible Stories in the life of ethnolinguistic churches with the understanding, recording and retrieval of ethno art forms as performing arts?  The Oral Bible Story can carry itself in the retelling of it, however the effectivity and perpetuity of the retelling from generations to generations can be assured with the ethno arts vehicle.  Imagine Oral Bible Stories being sung in the tune of an indigenous melody, a drama performance, a chant in a worship gathering, or a dialog in any community meeting. The potential of integrating Oral Bible Stories into the art forms of ethno-oral communities depend on the extent of our understanding of and the creativity to adapt to orally based thought with the ultimate goal of seeing the nations exalt Jesus.

Orality validates the outcomes of the initiative – Assess the Impact of the Gospel

We need a tool to evaluate the outcomes of ethno-orality initiatives.  Frank Gray is a former colleague from FEBC Philippines, a friend, and an author of the Radio In Missions, Lausanne Occassional Paper #26 (1989), and he has developed an instrument to measure the impact of the Gospel. Radio broadcasting has proven itself effective in reaching out to close countries and to date is an increase in inexpensive and unregulated FM stations that are owned and run locally to serve their own ethnolinguistic communities. Radio broadcast is part of the orality continuum. The assessment instrument is called The Gray Matrix or TGMX (for details, please check: http://thegraymatrix.org/?page_id=19).  This can be used at the beginning, mid-point and towards the end of the ethno-orality initiative. Whether our initiatives are with Tribals, Hindus, Unreligious, Muslims, Buddhists and Bible-less (THUMBB), this matrix is highly recommended in mapping out where our audience is in terms of the response to the Gospel before, during and after the ethno-orality initiative.

 Below is the TGMX and its explanation (reproduced with permission from Frank Gray):

oralities-literacies-ch9fig1.pngThe matrix approach provides us with four distinct quadrants (or areas). Each quadrant displays a different set of characteristics. The further from the center point the more extreme are these characteristics while the closer to the center the less pronounced they become. But in general terms people in the four quadrants display the following:

Quadrant A (bottom left):

  • closed toward the Gospel and ignorant of it
  • rejecting the message
  • unaware of the Gospel and possibly indifferent to it
  • possibly opposed toward Christian outreach or evangelism
  • hostile or resistant to Christians and church activity


Quadrant B (bottom right):

  • open toward Gospel and hungry to know more
  • accepting the message
  • welcoming toward Christians and Christian activity
  • a ripe harvest field


Quadrant C (top right):

  • born-again Christians — members of a fellowship of believers (if there
  • is one, and they are at liberty to attend)
  • growing in Christ
  • active in the Church
  • bringing others to a knowledge of Christ
  • demonstrating God’s grace at work in their lives through the Holy Spirit

Quadrant D (top left):

  • a difficult group who have experienced conversionbut have back-slidden or dropped out of active fellowship
  • negative toward Christians and the Church
  • spiritually cold
  • unlikely to be impacted through mass media but patiently and personally brought back into fellowship

An ethno-orality sharing of the Gospel among Bible-less Oral Cultures requires a significant and useful understanding of the pschodynamics of orality and the humility to adapt whatever it takes to communicate the saving knowledge of the Word of God among the oral cultures of the world. This would require the use of oral strategies such as the fusion of oral Bible stories and ethno arts that will find its way deep into orally based thought. It is also imperative that initiatives are intentionally developed in line with where the people are in their current relation to the Gospel, from the beginning and towards the end of the ethno-orality initiative.

The vision is quite vivid. When I see Bible-less people groups come to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ through ethno-orality initiatives, begin forming culturally-sensitive communities of Christ-followers, sharing the gospel among their ethno-linguistic communities and beyond, raising their own leaders, redeeming their cultures for the glory of God, improving their society, and glorifying God with their lives in dedicated service, I believe Christ has been communicated well such that these people who were formerly in darkness of sin are now in the light of God.


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